Phils want Howard to be 'force' in return to lineup

Struggling first baseman gets start after sitting past three days

Phils want Howard to be 'force' in return to lineup

PHILADELPHIA -- After sitting the past three games, baseball's highest-paid position player in 2014 was back in the starting lineup on Saturday night.

Ryan Howard, who was given what Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg called a three-day "mental break," got the start against Arizona's right-hander Josh Collmenter.

"I anticipate him having a clean head and being fresh and having some quality at-bats going forward," Sandberg said.

Howard went 2-for-5 with one walk and two strikeouts in his return, a 10-6 loss for the Phillies in 10 innings.

"He had some of his better at-bats against the left-handed pitcher," Sandberg said. "Had a couple base hits, a couple of knocks. It's something for him to build on."

Howard's .682 OPS entering Saturday was 207 points lower than his .889 career mark and 36 points below his career low (.718 in 2012). His .377 slugging percentage is 155 points lower than his career average (.532) and 46 points below his career low (.423 in 2012). But Sandberg hopes the extended rest will pay dividends in Howard's return.

"I think hopefully a little rest, a little regrouping will go a long way with Ryan and allow him to give him some time to think about some adjustments," Sandberg said. "So going forward, what I would want is for him to be a force in there and help us win games and be a guy chipping in and playing a part in us winning games."

First base has become a matchup-to-matchup situation for the Phillies. On Friday, Darin Ruf drew a walk and hit the ball hard in two of his other three plate appearances in what was his best-looking game since returning to the Majors on July 22.

If Ruf is going to get consistent playing time, a platoon with Howard is his best chance. With Marlon Byrd's consistent level of play dictating his strong grip on right field, opportunities are only available in left and center -- although right field could open up if Byrd is dealt by the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. And with Grady Sizemore, Ben Revere, Domonic Brown and John Mayberry Jr. all vying for time, the outfield is crowded enough, even without Ruf in the mix.

"I've got a little bit of a juggling act to do out there in the outfield with the guys and right now," Sandberg said.

"Right now, I'd consider that a good problem and with the guys on the bench. [Saturday night] it will be Revere and Ruf. They're swinging a good bat. That fares good for later in the game in a pinch-hit situation."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. Erik Bacharach is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.